• Ordinary Morality Presupposes Atheism, not God!

    I was listening today to The Reasonable Doubts podcast and I had a really interesting discussion that made reference to a fantastic paper written on morality. This paper concludes that morality and theism are juxtaposed to the point that if theism pervades, then morality is incoherent. Morality, it seems, presupposes atheism. This is interesting because so many apologists claim the exact opposite. The paper is by philosopher Stephen Maitzen and is titled “ORDINARY MORALITY IMPLIES ATHEISM“.

    So, let us look at the principles of what he says. Firstly, he set out a principle which he calls theodical individualism:

    (TI) Necessarily, God permits undeserved, involuntary human suffering only if such suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.

    This has a qualifier of undeserved “in order to satisfy retributivists who think people sometimes deserve to suffer; if you think people never deserve to suffer, simply ignore the qualifier.” This is a position which seeks to sum up the consensus of both theistic and anti-theistic philosophers when dealing with the problem of evil, such that Eleanore Stump declares:

    “if a good God allows evil, it can only be because the evil in question produces a benefit for the sufferer and one that God could not produce without the suffering.”

    I can’t overemphasise how important a statement that is. It is what defines the notion of God being a moral consequentialist as set out in my essay and post, “God is a consequentialist”.

    Matizen sets out another principle, declaring that the compensation of an afterlife, or similar, does not justify suffering. This is a truly critical notion that many theist overlook, since it is often offered as a viable theodicy. This should not qualify as a theodicy for the reasons that follow:

    Like Stump’s use of it, TI’s use of the word “produces” is significant, because otherwise we allow that God’s mere compensation of the sufferer—say, in a blissful afterlife—can justify God’s permission of suffering even if the suffering bears no necessary connection to the good that compensates for it. Without such a connection, the good may compensate for the suffering but can’t morally justify God’s permission of it. Consider an analogy to our ordinary moral practice. My paying you money after harming you may compensate for my harming you, but it doesn’t justify my harming you. Only something like the necessity of my harming you in order to prevent your harming me or an innocent third party has a chance of justifying my behavior: some necessary connection must hold between the harm and the benefit.

    In talking about how this TI statement, ordinary morality and theism cannot exist coherently side by side, Maitzen claims that theists recognise this and drop one of the “triad”, namely TI. But, Maitzen claims, they show no good reason for doing this, since it appears that ordinary morality and TI seem fairly fundamental, conceptually, and that theism is the weak link.

    What it boils down to is that God is using people, sufferers, instrumentally – as a means to an end. And the problem with this is that this is morally debatable, at least in the context of morality that theists seem to want to adhere to. It is entirely utilitarian in its approach – people are a means to an end.

    Here is how Maitzen starts to set out his argument for atheism from morality:

    (1) If God exists and TI is true, then, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer.

    (2) If, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer, then (a) we never have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering or (b) our moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering derives entirely from God’s commands

    We use vaccines in this way – to stop unnecessary suffering. But since suffering seems to be a command from God, who are we to get in the way of this?

    As Jordan puts it, the antecedent of (2) in effect “guarantees the operation of a kind of fail-safe device that renders every instance of [undeserved, involuntary] human suffering an instrumental good for that sufferer.” We know that some vaccines can cause serious side-effects, but suppose that an abundantly available vaccine were, despite the painfulness of receiving it, known to produce a net benefit (the painfulness included) for everyone who receives it. Suppose, further, that no less painful procedure produces the same benefit. Under those circumstances, how could we ever have a moral obligation to prevent vaccination? I can’t see how we could.

    As Maitzen posits, “we never have an obligation to prevent it unless God’s commands somehow give us such a duty”. This is because if we do not help people who can be helped, then they are going to suffer unnecessarily. But God can only allow such suffering, being omni, if it leads to a greater good. This is God’s failsafe. Thus there will always be a greater good to the suffering. But if we decide to step in and help, for example to vaccinate a child, we are stopping that greater good from taking place, as it necessarily must if we didn’t help. Maitzen analogises:

    Consider the case (alluded to earlier) of David Rothenberg, the six-year-old boy set on fire by his abusive father. If God exists and TI is true, then necessarily David ultimately benefits whenever God allows him to experience undeserved, involuntary suffering of such an intense kind. Thus, even if we could easily prevent his suffering, our allowing it is always like allowing him a vaccination known to be for his own net good. Granted, it may be that God wants us to prevent the suffering, but if we fail to prevent it David will be better off as a result. I don’t say that TI and theism give us either permission or an obligation to cause his undeserved, involuntary suffering—although a case can be made for that stronger claim—only that TI and theism relieve of us of any obligation to prevent it.

    Maitzen continues by talking about morality in cross-cultural contexts which does not rely on, or presuppose, God’s existence. In other words, we sometimes stop unnecessary suffering in the absence of (or in spite of) God’s divine commands to do so.

    (3) We sometimes have a moral obligation to prevent undeserved, involuntary human suffering, an obligation that does not derive entirely from God’s commands.

    Two subconclusions follow from the three premises just established:

    (4) So: It isn’t the case that, necessarily, all undeserved, involuntary human suffering ultimately produces a net benefit for the sufferer. [From (2), (3)]

    (5) So: God does not exist or TI is false. [From (1), (4)]

    As mentioned, theists such as Jeff Jordan (Jeff Jordan, “Divine Love and Human Suffering,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 56 (2004): 169–78; 172, 177 nn. 13, 23), whom Maitzen is targeting here, concede that TI follows from a Kantian view of ethics which states that humans cannot be merely used as a means to an end. If you are being used, in your suffering, as a means to an end, a greater good, then God is defying such Kantian ethical imperatives. As Maitzen observes:

    If God causes or even permits your unwilling, undeserved suffering primarily for the benefit of someone or something else, it does look as if God is, at least indirectly, treating you merely as a means. Despite the presence of the word “benefit” in TI, the basis for TI is deontological rather than consequentialist: TI serves as an absolute constraint on God’s maximization of goodness or happiness. I don’t claim that ordinary morality itself implies theological principles such as TI. Ordinary morality, as the name suggests, concerns our dealings with fellow creatures rather than our dealings with God. Nevertheless, I’m arguing that TI is true even if not itself a tenet if ordinary morality and that TI and theism jointly destroy a type of obligation that does belong to ordinary morality.

    As Jordan himself agrees:

    If Theodical Individualism is correct, then … there is [an] outweighing good for the sufferer. The goodness of God requires, moreover, that this outweighing good isn’t only compensatory, but is also a “necessary means or the best possible means in the circumstances to keep the sufferer from incurring even greater harm.” God permits that suffering, in those circumstances, because that suffering provides the optimal benefit, in those particular circumstances, to the human sufferer.

    Maitzen analogises to continue, then, his argument:

    Suppose that God allows Jack to endure undeserved, prolonged, and unbearable pain because it’s the only way to get Jack’s crush, Jill, who has consistently ignored his affections, freely to send Jack a get-well card that he’ll read just before he dies from his painful condition. Jack secures some benefit from the suffering—a freely sent get-well card from Jill—but suppose that his suffering is involuntary in that he wouldn’t regard the benefit as remotely worth the suffering even if he knew that not even God could produce the benefit any other way. Surely God’s conduct in that case falls short of moral perfection. It falls short even if we also suppose that Jack’s suffering produces significant benefits for others obtainable no other way (perhaps news of his suffering triggers generous donations that his hospital wouldn’t otherwise have received). It falls short of moral perfection because it’s unfair to Jack, and this demand for fairness in the treatment of individual persons is what underwrites the Kantian claim. Jack gets some reward, but not enough: not enough because his reward fails, by any reasonable measure, to offset his undeserved, involuntary suffering. The Kantian claim, in short, does imply TI, including TI’s requirement of a net benefit for the sufferer:

     (6) If not even God may treat human beings merely as means, then TI is true.

    What Maitzen looks to do, then, is show that his argument “presumes that a perfect being would never sacrifice an innocent person who didn’t volunteer for it”.

     It seems that when humans use other humans as means to an end, we fall short of moral perfection, so it can be claimed. As God appears to be doing this too, then God must fall short of moral perfection.

    (7) Not even God may treat human beings merely as means.

     It remains, then, only to draw the argument’s final two inferences:

     (8) So: TI is true. [From (6), (7)]

    (9) So: God does not exist. [From (5), (8)]

    For Maitzen’s treatment of objections and other more detailed analysis, see his paper, here.

    Category: AtheismMoralityUncategorized


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • Reasonably Faithless

      Theists often say that eternal bliss can compensate anything.  And maybe that is true in the sense that – if experiences could be positively or negatively numerically qualified and scored – after a certain point, the individual has received a net positive score which will only continue to increase.  But this does ignore the fact that the individual’s treatment could still be improved.  Such a person, on any given day, would have a lower score than they would have if God had removed even one tiny bit of suffering from one day of their life.

      Besides, surely nobody would think God was moral if he decided that each Christian would experience alternately 2 days in heaven and 1 day in hell repeatedly for the rest of eternity, even though the net experience is always positive…

      An *all*-good being wouldn’t consider either of the above options as good.

    • Richard Edwards

      If God was *required* to compensate by its nature would it not then be true that there *was* a necessary connection? The individual would not get the compensation without the suffering. If the “reward in Heaven” was exactly balanced against the suffering  – God had the power/knowledge to generate appropriate compensation – then suffering could effectively become neutral for the sufferer but might still have additional benefits beyond that. It would not be bad to stop the suffering (it is neutral for the sufferer) and could even be good if it benefited the one interfering.

      I’m also not sure that it is necessarily morally wrong to compensate someone for a means-to-an-end suffering if that compensation were sufficient and pre-agreed. Again, there would be necessary connection then. For example, what if you forced someone to move house for building a motorway/railway/flood defense or something? Would this not only be morally wrong if the compensation was insufficient?

      • A few points here Rich.

        1) compensation is not morally wrong. If you do a crime, or accident, it is morally right to compensate in some way afterwards.


        2) It is not right to commit a crime and justify it by compensation ex post facto. This is morally wrong. You can compensate, but not justify. If I crash into someone, it is right that my insurance company (me) pays out afterwards. It is not right that I crash into someone on purpose thinking it is alright because I will pay them afterwards.

        3) As such, any compensation, no matter how good or big, can morally justify a crime, no matter how small in the sense of morality as set out in the essay. In order for this to work, one would certainly have to be strictly utilitarian – which God is not. This is instrumental morality..

        4) It may be that on a personal level, I may be happy with being compensated hugely for a small crime, but this is besides the point. It is still instrumental – a means to an end (the victim being used as a means to an end – the kicks – by the person doing the crime).

        • Richard Edwards

          “It is not right to commit a crime and justify it by compensation ex post facto.”

          But if it was pre-arranged, then it would not be ex post facto, would it? If you *knew* in advance that someone would be equal or better off post-compensation (we’re talking about an omniscient being here), would it still be morally objectionable? In other words, if you could set the compensation such that, if asked after the event, the “sufferer” would opt for “crime+compensation” versus “neither” (even if not aware at the time), would it still be morally wrong?

          The problem with your examples is that as non-omniscient beings, we have no way of knowing this, so it would never be OK for us.

          Secondly, I’m not sure that it is a crime to not stop something bad happening, is it? There is a difference between setting someone on fire and not stopping someone else from setting them on fire. Indeed, if the consequence of interference was worse than the consequence of non-interference, then surely it would be morally wrong to interfere?

          I think this is linked to the Free Will argument. If the consequence of Free Will is potential suffering but having Free Will trumps any potential suffering (in combination with compensation), there would be a necessary connection between the suffering and the reward (Free Will + compensation). (i.e. You would be worse of with no suffering, Free Will or compensation.) Surely it is not immoral to do something with an associated risk of harm if that harm is adequately compensated later and, whatever the outcome (harm or not) the individual that might be harmed would ultimately be worse off if you did NOT do that thing?

          Of course, if Free Will is an illusion, then that argument is ultimately unsound but I do not think it is invalid.

          • The point is here, Rich, that you are presupposing utilitarianism / consequentialism as a moral theory here. Of course, in this case, these are (to the theist) not valid moral theories, at least not concerning God. Morality is grounded objectively in God, so they say.

            What you say might make sense to us, with different moral theories, but with regards to God, divine deontology of sorts is required. For example, you would allow God to torture the whole of humanity for a million years and then balance this by an eternity in heaven. Even with foreknowledge that the victims would be up for it, this does not make it morally good – not justifiable from a deontological standpoint. It means God could be a complete bastard the whole time because he could balance it in heaven.

      • The point being, to emphasise, is that the type of morality being critiqued is theistic morality, which is deontological (Kantian), such that people can’t be used as a means to an end by God, even though YOU might (and myself, actually) think that is fine, because we have a different moral framework than that of God, or that theists claim of God. Otherwise there is no need of God for morality, since its value and ontology can be derived without needing him.

    • Daydreamer1

      One thing that always strikes me about this sort of theological argument is a type of anti-humanness within it. It seems to contend that once we die important aspects of our humanness are simply washed away.

      So if you suffer an event that causes severe psychological damage somehow a payment for this of ‘bliss’, even if for ever, manages to nullify this quite human attribute. Yet the human response to someone with psychological issues to the first 10 minutes of bliss is not to be cured. The assumption seems to be that all psychological issues are cured the very second you enter heaven, and I am sure that is what they would argue.

      But our minds are complex things and we might not want every pain we suffer to just disappear since they define us just as much as our happy thoughts. The theological argument that we are wiped clean of every pain, but are still the same person, and that infinite bliss works as a payment against mental illness caused by harm while at the same time the person is ‘re-booted’ to get rid of the mental illness caused by the harm just seems like a childish story to explain their way out of the corner they put themselves into with all this nonsense.

      I guess if I suffered some terrible event that someone in responsibility could have stopped and their answer to my real suffering was to offer me a drug that would make me happy I would not think it an excuse for why they allowed it.

    • IgtheistMorgan

      Fr. Meslier’s the problem of Heaven queries why should there exist in Heaven free will and a guarantee not to do wrong, why  not here in the first place for theists to be consistent. And as, many theists presuppose that He has foreknowledge, He’d know beforehand the free will tests for soul-building anyway!
      Theists sure love to rationalize!  John Hick was the ever-ready rationalizer! He guessed that perhaps God will put us through some kind of purgatory and perhaps analogical virtues exist in Heaven. Again, I  plead why not here in the first place. He makes a straw man against us naturalists with the all or nothing and the slippery slope arguments that we would have perfect hedonism, no, we just let the theist notion that Heaven is paradise and let it boomerang on theists!
      Once again, theists pose twaddle to exonerate putative God of evil! And again, this makes for incoherency as good cannot be compatible with theistic good that includes unrequited evil, confirming thereby igosticism/igtheism/ theological non-cognitivism.
       I have no desire to believe in God! How could one have a personal relationship with a square circle or married bachelor?
       Theistic inanities make me a gnu atheist!

    • Joseph O Polanco

      I think this essay here gives a more elevated view of the problem and its implications for the eternal well-being of all mankind: http://bit.ly/11EyvgO

      • Now that’s the funniest thing you have yet said, That is a terrible not-even-essay. And you have the gall to compare that with a superb philosophical essay by someone renowned in his field who uses his proper name:

        W. G. Clark Professor of Philosophy
        Chair of the Research Ethics Board
        M.A., Ph.D., Cornell University
        Yale Law School
        B.A. with Highest Distinction, Northwestern University



        Not to argue from authority, but your ‘essay’ has no hallmarks of being an academic piece, communicates nothing of value, and is not even in the same league as Maitzen’s.

        Please don’t continue to embarrass yourself. And don’t assert shit like that without even attempting to understand the essay in question let alone refute it.

        Just wow.

        • Joseph O Polanco

          Ooohhhh, you’ve done did it again!

          Argumentum ignoratio elenchi loaded with argumentum ad lapidem. You’ve done nothing to dispel the arguments presented nor the brute facts that support them. Try again.

          • Stop being a hypocritical dick.

            What have YOU done to “dispel the arguments presented nor the brute facts that support them” of Maitzen’s paper?

            You haven’t even read it.

            Stop being a prat. YOU bloody try again, you child.

            • Joseph O Polanco

              Read the essay to find out.

            • So you haven’t read Maitzen’s essay?

              SO what is the point of you commenting if you are not dealing with the OP.

              That sort of behaviour will get you banned.

            • Joseph O Polanco

              I don’t follow. How does the essay I reference not address key points of Maitzen’s essay? In my estimation, it refutes it quite effectively. What am I missing?

            • Tell me your main understanding of Maitzen’s essay. Talk me through your understanding of the philosophy of compensation theories. Tell me about your understanding of God being a consequentialist and the OT being ample evidence that morality is not grounded in God etc.

              Primarily do you own work, you lazy arse.

            • Joseph O Polanco

              The issue is that Maitzen’s argument obviates the salient reason for suffering by focusing on the symptom (suffering) rather than the reason or root cause for suffering and evil. Not that he’d be able to address such a question even if he wanted to because it requires a level of knowledge unaccessible to him – and everyone else, really. It requires us to see things from God’s elevated vantage point. In effect we’d have to know what he was thinking and the circumstances which set things in motion.

              Thankfully, we’re not at a complete loss because he tells us exactly what happened and why. He reveals to us that he created everything on Earth sublimely and that complete harmony existed in the beginning. He also reveals to us how one of his spirit creations – later known as Satan the Devil – surreptitiously convinced Eve that rebelling against her Creator would be of great benefit to her. She communicates the same to her husband, Adam, and the they both choose to turn against Jehovah God, their Creator. With that, they both began to die.

              More importantly, “by seducing Adam and Eve into choosing independence from their Creator, in effect, Satan founded a family that was not truly independent but under his authority. Influenced, knowingly or unknowingly, by their “father,” the Devil, this family would choose its own goals and standards of conduct. (John 8:44) But would that way of life bring them true freedom and lasting happiness? Jehovah knew full well that it would not. Still, he allowed the rebels to pursue their independent course, for only in this way would the issues raised in Eden be fully settled for all time.” – http://bit.ly/11EyvgO

              With me so far?

            • 1) Adam and Eve are scientifically impossible

              2) You have clearly not read Maitzen’s paper since it is theodical, and as such is concerned with the reasons. In fact, you are so far off, that I will ignore you until you show evidence of comprehending the paper.

            • Joseph O Polanco

              How so?

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